Starting with a Bang

Nobel laureate Arthur McDonald unravels mysteries that all started with a big bang

Canadian astrophysicist and Nobel laureate Arthur McDonald, center, meets The Big Bang Theory cast (Credit: Queen’s University)

Nerdy genius Sheldon Cooper from the popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory would struggle to contain his jealousy if he got to meet Arthur McDonald – because McDonald won the Nobel prize and he hasn’t.

“And my high-school sweetheart, Janet, was hot. She still is after being my wife of 50 years,” joked McDonald, the astrophysicist whose work has earned the respect of many, including a former student, David Saltzberg, science consultant of The Big Bang Theory.

The real-life science whiz at Queen’s University in Canada was awarded the prestigious award in 2015 for solving a long-standing mystery in fundamental physics: the properties of neutrinos, known colloquially as the ghost particles.

Neutrinos are one of the basic building blocks of our world. Their origin can be traced back to the period immediately after the Big Bang.

They hold the key to define how our universe evolves, how we can better observe supernova and black holes, and how the sun burns.

But neutrinos have certain unusual properties that make them extremely difficult to detect. They don’t carry electric charges so they don’t behave the way electrons do. They do not experience the strong interaction which binds quarks and protons in a nucleus.

Before McDonald’s discovery, scientists knew little about neutrinos, except that they are produced in the core of the sun, passing through the Earth in enormous quantities. In fact, hundreds of billions of them are going through your body at this moment.

“We are oblivious to their existence,” said McDonald. “For the type of neutrino – electron neutrino – we were studying, five millions go through something the size of your thumbnail every second. Maybe once in your lifetime, they’ll stop in your body.”

In 1984, a group of 16 scientists came together when a physicist, Herbert Chen Hwa-sen, at the University of California at Irvine tried to borrow C$3 million (HK$18.05 million) worth of heavy water from the Canadian government to build a neutrino detector.

No scientist had tried constructing such a facility before. The required engineering was a technological challenge. To build an effective detector, one has to first make a hole deep enough to get rid of the interference from other particles coming from outer space.

McDonald was a tenured professor at Princeton University at the time. He recalled the long journey from conception of the experiment to design, construction, commission and data analysis that ultimately led to the evidence that won him a Nobel prize.

“The cavity that we excavated was in an active nickel mine where thousands of tons of ore moved out in a day. The facility is the size of a 10-story building. No one had ever been able to dig a cavity that size at that depth before,” he said.

“We had to construct an acrylic sphere 12 meters in diameter, and five centimeters thick. The company that built it had to develop new techniques to do something no one had done before. It took us 2.5 years just to build the sphere.”

The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, located in Canada, did not start operating until 1999. The facility was where McDonald and his large international team discovered that neutrinos can change identities, known as “flavors,” transforming themselves between electron-, muon- and tau-type.

The metamorphosis requires neutrinos to have mass, dispelling the long-held notion that they were mass- less. McDonald’s data have altered how scientists understand the innermost workings of neutrinos.

His measurements also verify our understanding of how the sun burns, leaving open the possibility of reproducing on Earth the nuclear fusion that powers the sun, and thus, developing a new energy source that will benefit mankind.

Scientists from Hong Kong play a substantial role in some of the latest neutrino research. There is a group from the University of Hong Kong working at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva, McDonald said.

Another physicist at Queen’s University, named Mak Hay-boon, worked with McDonald to develop the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. McDonald is building a new facility nearby, which will open next year, to work on neutrino double beta decay.

“A physicist named Wang Yifang, whom we shared another prize with last year, made his measurements at the Daya Bay reactor. He is doing another experiment at the Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory in southern China,” he added.

McDonald has retired from teaching, but he is still active in neutrino research, including working on a paper about dark matter particles that will be published this summer. As life imitates art – or vice versa in his case – the astrophysicist is well on his way to unraveling a new mystery that all started with a big bang.

“This is what you do in basic physics. You keep track of the most important things internationally, look for opportunities where your skills and background can do something earth-shattering, and during the process, push the boundaries of technology,” he said.

The article first appeared in the Standard on July 11, 2017.

Providing the Right Support

The Truth about Teenage Suicide – and How to Prevent it


A disturbing wave of suicides among students has made local headlines again. In February, six young people tried to take their own lives. Five succeeded. These recent cases add to a tally of 71 student suicides reported in the past three years.

A survey that came out last week estimates that 31.6 percent of primary school children and 40.3 percent of those in secondary school are at risk of suicide. The new findings match a number of other reports which have looked into the issue of teenage suicide.

Senior primary school children and junior secondary school pupils are more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts as they are in critical transition periods at school.

That said, academic pressure is not the only reason why youngsters decided to end their lives. Other common triggers include breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, conflict with family members, mental illness and troubled friendships.

The good news is statistics have been dropping since the peak in 2003. While there were more male than female suicide cases, the overall numbers are lower than what were recorded in developed countries.

Suicide is preventable but requires everybody’s effort to recognize the importance of mental well-being, said Leesa Tinney, psychologist and lecturer at Monash University in Australia.

“Friends and teachers are in a good position to know whether a young person is in distress because they know the person really well. They can see small changes. Parents do too. But parents sometimes can be too close,” she added. “Noticing depression is key to picking up suicide.

“For depression, you will be looking for signs, such as a person wanting to be on his own, not doing fun things that he used to like doing, and withdrawing from his friends. Other indicators include teary eyes, and changes in sleeping and eating habits. Sometimes, kids come across as agitated or angry. But it’s usually about feeling sad or losing hope. Take note of comments like ‘there is no future’ or ‘there is no point.’ ”

Timely intervention can save lives. Three out of four victims will seek help either implicitly or explicitly before actual suicide attempts, a report submitted to the Education Bureau in November found.

Another local study in 2006 pinpointed the golden hour of intervention, with 16 percent dying within 24 hours of showing suicidal tendencies, 14 percent within a week, 10 percent within a month, 11.3 percent in two months, and 23.3 percent for two months or more before the act.

Based on experiences, Tinney concludes that the types of therapeutic technique used, while all are effective, make a small difference in the counseling outcomes. A large part depends on the young person and his or her relationship with a confidant.

Young people who are more willing to seek help and believe their initiative will help tend to benefit more from a counseling session.

And an adviser who is able to build rapport and a genuinely trusting relationship is more effective than a stranger to talk someone out of suicide.

“You don’t need to have special skills. You just need to be calm, be open, be ready to listen, and be logical to figure out what to do next,” she said.

“Asking someone whether they are thinking about suicide is not going to put the idea into their heads. They are already thinking about it. Asking that question says you are brave enough to have this conversation and hear all the stuff that they are going through.”

“One thing that you should not do is ignore it. Being left alone is pretty awful. And the longer an at-risk young person is left alone is not going to be good.”

If you don’t know how to do a risk assessment, begin with simple questions, such as: “Are you okay?”

Avoid phrasing a question jokingly – such as “Don’t do anything silly,” – because that will put a young person down, Tinney said.

If you feel clumsy doing it, inform a family friend, the child’s school, a counsellor or a family doctor to have that conversation. But that person should be someone the child is familiar with.

With older adolescents, their personalities are already well-formed. They have developed their own set of coping skills to deal with adverse situations. Some children see cutting a wrist or suicide as a way to cope and it’s normal.

Even so, building resilience is possible. A confidant’s role is to create lots of different coping options when a young person feels awful, Tinney said.

Establishing a connection beyond academia, giving a young person a sense of belonging and purpose, helping them structure their daily lives, assisting them to learn how to make good choices, and teaching them to laugh can shield a young person from negative experiences.

An online resource compiled by Australian clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller is a good starting point for parents and teachers to learn more about building resilience in children.

The article first appeared in the Standard on May 23, 2017.

Hawking Holograms

Beam me up! Professor Stephen Hawking turned into a 3D hologram at a lecture in Hong Kong

hawking hologram

Meeting Stephen Hawking in person is already an exciting experience. But this time around, the hype was not about what the world-famous theoretical physicist said but the medium that he chose to deliver his lecture.

Hawking appeared as a hologram in front of hundreds in the audience at the Hong Kong Science Park last month. With images being beamed live from Hawking’s office in Cambridge, the technology involved goes beyond the speech synthesizer that the British scientist uses.

The holographic projection, which was slightly larger than the professor is in life-size, was created by ARHT Media. The Canadian startup has partnered with NetDragon Websoft, a Hong Kong-based online games company, to market the imaging technology in Asia.

Photo-realistic human holograms are not new. Although they are still a novelty in commercial applications, they have been used by the entertainment industry which deems the six-figure production cost affordable.

Digital Domain, the Hong Kong-based owner of the Playa Vista visual effects studio, has resurrected a number of deceased singers, such as Tupac Shakur and Teresa Teng, through its hologram project. The virtual image of Teng performed on stage with Taiwanese pop singer Jay Chou in 2013.

ARHT Media is prioritizing application in education over entertainment, though. It wants to bring its HumaGram technology to students and teachers, building a “low cost, high distribution” learning platform that will pull together “some of the best educators in the world”.

“We believe the Asian market, in particularly China, represents a fertile ground for us to realize this technology,” said Paul Duffy, president and chief executive of ARHT Media. “In Hong Kong, we are actively pursuing a number of universities and corporations.”

The demonstration event in Hong Kong showed a glimpse of what to come. During the 90-minute lecture, Hawking spoke and answered inquiries about his career, current research, and where he stands on the issue of Brexit and Donald Trump.

Despite the speaker’s immobility and monotonous computer voice, the crowd was listening attentively. The novelty factor of a hologram prolonged the audience’s attention span, with them marveling at the life-like eyes and lips movement captured and recreated on stage.

Hawking’s lecture was taped. It will be broadcast as a pay-per-view program.

“We have an open system concept, which works on all devices – television, smartphone, iPad and augmented reality headset,” said Simon Leung Lim-kin, vice chairman and executive director of NetDragon Websoft. “All the experiences that we capture will be able to be enjoyed on any devices, anytime anywhere.”

hawking at cambridge

Creating a human hologram is simpler than one would imagine. Hawking was seated in front of a green screen that measured four meters wide and eight meters tall. Multiple shots were captured in advance. However, a single-camera setup would suffice during a live broadcast.

Transmitting the hologram require technical specialty. The Toronto-based company has developed an exclusive video codec to package the audio and images that can be sent with low latency over a cloud-based media server and broadband internet connection.

“We are able to create a primary, secondary and tertiary format so we have redundancy built in the system. When we have a clean line, which is typically what happens when we set up, we are able to take a human hologram from Los Angeles to Hong Kong in 400 to 700 milliseconds,” Duffy said.

In regions such as the mainland, where landline internet connection is unstable and expensive, sending a partial hologram – only the face, instead of the full body, as an example – is one solution.

Another option for transmission is via a mobile phone network.

“We typically need anywhere from two to 10 megabytes per second for transmission. That’s the low end of 3G. So most of the transmissions that we are doing now can probably be provisioned through a cell-phone network,” he added.

Reproducing a human hologram does not require the use of a special projector. But special mesh-like screens are needed. Two screens were used at Hawking’s lecture: a nine-meter-wide, four-meter-high one fixed at mid-stage, and another in the rear of the stage.

The virtual Hawking was projected in-between the screens. It was, in fact, a two-dimensional image. But stage lighting and fancy graphics can fool the human brain, making the screens invisible and the image convincingly three-dimensional, explained an engineer of ARHT Media.

The company is creating a smaller type of special screen for schools and home users. The new screen measures twp-meter-high and one to two meters wide. Only one of them, rather than two, is required to render a hologram image.

While human hologram is not as widely popular as other existing types of video streaming technologies, important early adopters exist.

Duffy predicted that a critical mass of clientele will form when the price for purchasing projection equipment falls under US$1,000 (HK$7,800).

“The cost to build a display station is coming down dramatically. And mass proliferation of virtual reality and augmented reality headsets all make for the ability to create a fully formed human experience but in a life-size model,” he said.

“In the US, it costs from a few hundreds dollars all the way down to US$50 or US$60 a month to lease one of these projectors. It’s getting quickly into the realm of what’s possible for mass distribution.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on April 24, 2017.

Let’s Talk Politics

The Trump presidency is a big test for America’s friends and foes in Asia Pacific, says Australian professor of international politics Mark Beeson

Donald Trump Addresses Republican Retreat In Philadelphia

For Mark Beeson, there is no better time to be teaching international affairs than now. Hardly a day goes by without new shocking revelations coming to light about how ideologically divided the United States is these days.

And President Donald Trump’s antagonistic positions on numerous issues are a textbook case of what a global leader should not have adopted.

But underneath the polished intellectual exterior, the professor of international politics at the University of Western Australia is deeply worried.

The unpredictability of Trump’s leadership is a big test for the rest of the world as a misguided response could bring cataclysmic consequences.

“It’s now quite a remarkably interesting time, and quite an unsettling one,” said the Australian. “The Trump administration sends out contradictory signals all the time. So it’s really hard for friends and foes to know what they are likely to do.”

The Trump presidency brings uncertainty to the already debilitated relationships of powerful nations. On the global economic front, Trump kept his election promise and ripped up his predecessor’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement on his first day in office.

The decision to kill off one of the most far-reaching and binding free trade agreements has effectively snubbed America’s closest allies, Australia, Canada and Japan, which are signatories.

“That’s been a real blow for many of the countries in Asia, particularly to Australia and Japan, which has put a lot of time and effort in trying to get that agreement up. It was a good agreement,” Beeson said.

“In fact, as far as America’s national interests go, the TPP might not have been done too badly by its multinational corporations. So you have got to wonder about whether the Trump administration really understands the nature of that agreement and global trade.”

China, America’s strongest competitor in jockeying for world dominance, is also receiving the same incoherent, and at times, contentious treatment.

Trump has yet to slap a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports as promised, but did reiterate last week his stern stance on China. The latest rhetoric saw the new White House occupant slamming the Chinese as the “grand champions” of currency manipulation. But then immediately, his Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin softened the tone at another occasion.

In stark contrast to Trump’s protectionist “America first” policy is President Xi Jinping’s defense of a liberalized global trade system. There are several free trade initiatives already in discussion that look destined to cement China’s dominance in Asia.

For example, the ASEAN-sponsored Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific. The United States was not involved in either before Trump was elected so it is highly unlikely that it will get involved now.

“They are both potentially significant if China will be the driving force behind them,” Beeson said. “Yet, there is a big debate around how serious and willing China would be about actually following through what it has implied doing.”

China’s growing influence has unnerved the China hawks in the Trump administration. Key skeptics include trade chief Peter Navarro and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. They advocate a more combative rhetoric toward China economically and militarily.

“Navarro has a very old-fashioned mercantilist, zero-sum view. He turns out to be a big influence on Trump, who doesn’t seem to have a fixed position on trade. Trump is clearly open to be influenced,” Beeson said.

“Tillerson has said the United States is going to stop China from reinforcing in the South China Sea. The only realistic possibility to doing that is by military means. Trump has already said he would increase the size of the navy from 272 to 355 ships.”

“The Chinese government will find it difficult to back away from their claims and desire to remain in control of those islands. The dangerous thing on both sides now is that they are both painting themselves into a corner from which it is very difficult to retreat.”

The war of words between the two superpowers not only would end up turning Asia Pacific into a flash point for an actual war, but also hurt innocent bystanders economically as the United States has been a key importer of goods produced in the region since the East Asian miracle.

Smaller entities in this part of the world, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, regardless of where their allegiance lies, will become “the meat in the sandwich” to the transactional approach to diplomacy of the two great powers.

“It’s naive to have blind faith in any allies or alleged friends. All countries pursue what could be in their national interest to some extent. But it’s much more consequential when the country is America or China,” Beeson said. “Their ideas of pursuing their national interests have ramifications for the world.”

“So can countries trust them? Probably not in the sense of whether they are going to stick to their words if the circumstance doesn’t suit them or there is a change of administration.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on March 7, 2017.

Quantum of Solace

Quantum scientist Michele Mosca explains what quantum computing is, and why the technology is going to change our views about cybersecurity


Like big bang cosmology and evolutionary biology, quantum mechanics is perhaps one of the most successful and baffling theories in science. The theory that was developed at the start of the 20th century calculates with incredible precision how light and matter behave.

It became the theoretical foundation of much of today’s information technology, as it has for some aspects of chemical processing, molecular biology, and the discovery of new materials.

Yet physicist Richard Feynman’s private joke about the theory still rings true today: if you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don’t.

“We don’t understand it, but we can tell you how it works,” said mathematician and quantum scientist Michele Mosca. “We know how to use it, and we are building devices that can use it. There is no uncertainty about how it works and how we can use it to do robust cryptography.”

For years, Mosca has been trying to program a new type of supercomputer that uses the principles of quantum theory to increase the computational power beyond what is attainable by a traditional computer.

Large-scale quantum computers are still a dream today, but Mosca predicts that there is a good chance they can become a reality in 15 years. And when the time comes, these supercomputers could work on complex mathematical riddles.

“Applications include the design of new drugs or new materials that can capture energy better or transport energy more efficiently. New materials are ultimately a collection of atoms which behave quantum mechanically. It’s very hard to simulate quantum mechanical systems or chemical reactions at a chemical level with a classic computer,” Mosca said. “Another example is designing buildings better, such as putting in dampers at the right configurations.”

To comprehend why a quantum computer can work wonders while a conventional computer cannot, one has to first make sense of quantum science that underpins quantum computing. The explanation is not that daunting as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has glibly summarized it: “A regular computer bit is either a one or a zero. On or off. A quantum state can be much more complex than that.”

Stephen Watt, dean of mathematics at the University of Waterloo in Canada, explained: “Quantum computing is about using atoms to do computing so it’s not just the true or false, but all of the maybes in between are calculated simultaneously.”

Watt used light as an analogy. “You can think of light as waves or tiny particles of light called photons,” he said. “Since light behaves a bit like waves, when beams are near each other, they mix together. We can look at one of the two photons that are near each other, or come from a common origin, to tell the state of the other one – like the positive and negative of an image.”

So the information that quantum computers process – called quantum bit – can be zeros, or ones, or both. A quantum bit can pack more information than a regular bit. And quantum computers can explore all the different configurations at the same time and learn properties that take forever on a conventional computer.

At the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing, which Mosca co-founded, scientists are working on sending information from the ground to a satellite.

Last August, Chinese space scientists launched the world’s first quantum communications satellite into space. The satellite, called Micius, sends encrypted information from space to the ground with a method called quantum key distribution.

The “observer effect” principle in quantum key distribution means that Micius can detect clandestine snooping, knowing instantly if a packet of information has been opened not by the sender and the intended recipient. Micius, in theory, is hackproof.

But with all the excitement around quantum computing, the technology can threaten existing cyber infrastructure. Cyber attackers with access to quantum tools can break current forms of cryptography.

“Cryptography underpins cyber security, which underpins all our cyber technologies. And we are much more dependent on them today than we were 10 years ago,” Mosca said. “So we need to fix the pillars of cyber security before we have quantum computers.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on February 14, 2017.

Why Mainlanders Love IB

For mainland Chinese parents, the issue runs deeper than the wish to sending their children abroad to study one day


Middle-class families in China are becoming the money spinners for the country’s private education providers, particularly for kindergartens and primary schools offering the International Baccalaureate curriculum.

According to the latest figures from the official body that supervises the teaching of the curriculum, 105 schools in the mainland now follow one or more of the four IB programs for students aged three to 19 years.

China now has the largest number of IB schools in Asia Pacific – 86 of them private and 19 state schools.

“The number of private IB schools has doubled since 2014,” said Wesley Han Wei, chief operating officer of International Bilingual Experts – formerly IB Experts – Education Management.

Han’s Hong Kong-based consultancy firm specializes in helping education providers develop and implement the IB curriculum in the mainland, offering services from school design to operations, and teacher recruitment and training.

He added: “They are filling a market demand as local governments have announced measures to tighten the integration of Western-influenced curriculum at state schools. The surge was most evident in rich cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai.”

In China, IB schools can be categorized into two groups: international schools that only enroll children with a foreign passport (such as Dulwich College in Shanghai and Suzhou), and private schools that also accept domestic students, regardless of their place of residence under the hukou system.

The latter group is where wealthy Chinese parents are flocking to. These parents ultimately want to pave the way for their children to go to top Western universities. But the reasons why they opt for a foreign education during their children’s early to middle childhood stage are complicated.

“Middle-class families in China are turning away from the traditional curriculum because they think it places too much emphasis on teaching materials and examinations. They want an education that fosters an international perspective, problem-solving skills, and English proficiency. IB schools, coincidentally, can provide what they want,” Han said.

“Another is compatibility. The IB curriculum fits in well with the Chinese national curriculum. It encourages students to appreciate local cultures. Many parents who favor a foreign education don’t want their kids to lose their cultural identity. They also don’t want to send their kids abroad at an early age because that would mean depriving them of the guanxi network [of connections].”

Property developers are the main driving force for the opening of private IB schools in China. A case in point is the Guangdong-based firm Country Garden. In 2014, it opened a “through- train” private school in Huizhou, offering kindergarten to pre-university education.

The school is a popular destination for Hong Kong families who live in Huizhou.

The school is awaiting approval to teach the IB’s primary years program. It currently teaches Advanced Placement and A-levels program in the senior years. At full capacity, it can enroll 3,500 local and expatriate students.

Despite the hefty tuition – fees for non-residents are 55,000 yuan (HK$61,884) to 129,000 yuan per year – the school receives a high amount of interest from parents in Guangdong, having enrolled about 700 local students in under three years, Han said.

Private education is a lucrative business in China. The return on investment is higher than that of state schools, with profits reaching up to 20 percent per year.

That piqued the interest of many investors to join the game. Public universities in China are also enticed to expand into the sector to raise their profile. For example, Zhejiang Normal University has pledged 600 million yuan to open a “through-train” private school in the province. The IB school, which will open in September, will be separately run by independent managers from outside.

“We are expecting 20 to 30 schools to be opened every year in the major cities of China,” Han said. “Beijing and Shanghai are the obvious locations, but the trend has spread to second- and third-tier coastal cities, such as Kunshan and Zhejiang.”

While more choice is good news for parents, they also need to cautiously vet these private schools in times of an investment euphoria. A reason is the current shortage of qualified IB teachers in China translates into a disparity in teaching standards.

Meanwhile, the Shanghai government and the National People’s Congress were separately seeking to curtail Western-influenced curriculum at bilingual schools, Caixin reported last week. While the education sector said the news will not affect international schools that operate exclusively for expatriate children, private schools that target domestic students may bear the brunt of the policy.

The article first appeared in the Standard on November 22, 2016.

Brexit Fears Loom Large

Universities and international students caught in the political crossfire of British divorce from the EU

File photograph shows an employee walking over a mosaic depicting pound sterling symbols on the floor of the front hall of the Bank of England in LondBritain’s decision to leave the European Union, commonly known as “Brexit,” has made many current and prospective international students feel concerned about graduating from a British university with potentially worse-off prospects.

In a televised interview last week, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May said she would trigger Article 50, a clause of the Lisbon treaty that must be invoked to start the Brexit negotiation process, by the end of next March. With a two-year negotiation period, the move signifies that Britain is likely to leave the European Union by 2019.

There are great uncertainties surrounding the topics that will be discussed at the negotiating table, and how those outcomes will affect the governing policies of British universities and the quality of higher education.

For example, postgraduate students particularly may bear the brunt of reduced university funding if the European Union no longer sponsors some of the inter-varsity research and exchange projects under the Horizon 2020 agreement. British universities might raise tuition fees for international students. Academic and administrative staff from Europe might face a tighter visa regime if there is a halt of the free movement of EU citizens in the country.

Valerie Amos, director of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London said the immediate negotiation outcomes of Brexit will not affect students from Hong Kong, although she admitted the longer-term impact will take time to manifest itself.

“[Non-EU] international students are completely separated from the debate around Brexit because…what universities are going to charge for their courses is not in any way determined by Brexit,” Amos said during a visit to Hong Kong for a SOAS centennial event.

“The issue is what happens to European students. If the government makes a decision that they will no longer count as the same as home students, then it’s the fee for EU students that will rise, it’s not that the fees for [non-EU] international students will rise to make up for EU students.”

According to SOAS, 16 percent of its student body are European Union citizens. There are slightly more at postgraduate and doctoral degree level than at undergraduate degree level. In terms of staff numbers, 200 of the total 1,247 come from the EU.

Amos is among a group of worried university leaders who have found themselves making a guarantee publicly to allay the fear of a substantial increase in tuition fees in the coming three to four years.

Earlier this year, Simon Gaskell, president of Queen Mary University of London, told current undergraduate students from EU nations that their tuition would remain at £9,000 (HK$86,684) regardless of the decision of the June 23 vote on Britain’s membership in the bloc.

With their promises, international students view cheaper tuition due to a weaker pound as an attractive short-term benefit. However, in the longer run, many are troubled by issues amplified by the referendum, such as xenophobia and tighter immigration controls.

They also cited poorer post-study work options as a legitimate concern. Richard Portes, economics professor at London Business School, said a fall in investment and the exchange rate are both highly likely once Article 50 is triggered. “The result will be a massive negative shock to the British economy,” he added.

A pre-Brexit poll by Hobsons, a student recruitment and retention solutions company, found that 34 percent of 875 students who were not already registered at a British university said they were less likely to do so in the future because of Brexit. Of those who would find a British education least attractive in the event of Brexit, 82 percent of the respondents were from the EU.

According to the quasi-government body Higher Education Statistics Agency, of the 2.3 million students who attended universities in Britain across all levels in the 2014-15 school year, 107,875, or about 4.7 percent, came from non-EU countries. In that year, the numbers of mainland and Hong Kong students studying in Britain were 89,540 and 16,215 respectively.

Another survey done by research firm International Graduate Insight Group in 2015 found that of the 80,000 Chinese students currently studying in Britain, some 91 percent said they would choose to study in America, if not Britain.

Hobsons estimated 20,178 Chinese students, 4,811 Indian students and 4,592 American students could be averse to coming to study in the UK.

“These figures merely present the extrapolation of attitudinal survey data to indicative changes in total international student numbers,” Hobsons said in a report. “Nevertheless, the results of this survey demonstrate what scale the impact of the EU referendum could be felt on.”

While Amos dismissed a brewing xenophobic public sentiment as “a wrong representation of a nation and its people in this very narrow and insular way,” she said British universities are aware of the competition for student recruitment in the higher education market.

“We have made our concerns clear to government in relation to the advantages of having students who have done research being able to stay on and make a contribution to the United Kingdom. So these are concerns that we have raised, and will continue to raise.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on October 11, 2016.